Lance Armstrong’s return to professional cycling did not end in victory here at the Tour Down Under on Saturday.
But the 37-year-old American, completing his professional comeback after a three-and-a-half year hiatus, is happy with his race form less than five months before fully testing his legs at the three-week Giro d’Italia.
“I could have come in with expectations that could be completely unrealistic, not having the race experience in three-and-a-half years.
“I slightly exceeded [expectations],” Armstrong said after the fifth and penultimate stage, in which Australian Allan Davis tightened his grip on the race leader’s jersey.
Armstrong is unlikely to risk injury by launching a bid for victory today’s sixth and final stage, a 90km road race on a 4.5km circuit which normally ends in a hectic bunch sprint.
Ahead of competing in the Giro d’Italia in May/June and the Tour de France in July, Armstrong said next month’s Tour of California will provide an even stiffer test of his race form.
But he feels last week has given him a good indication of what needs to be done if he is to regain the form which saw him dominate the world’s best stage racers for seven consecutive years.
“Just based on the training, based on the power that I saw in training, based on how I felt after five hours of training, I expected to be in the first few on the climbs. Which I guess we can say I was able to do,” he said.
“There’s still a long way to go ... until you guys are really asking the hard questions. But I’m pretty happy,” he said.
The 148km ride from Snapper Point to Willunga, which included two climbs of the short but steep Willunga Hill, had been expected to give a more complete picture of Armstrong’s ability to race after his three-and-a-half year absence from the sport.
After a three-man group managed to get away from the bunch on the second climb at Willunga, Armstrong tried to close the gap in the company of Australian Adam Hansen.
But with Davis driving his Quick Step team to the limit, the frontrunners were unable to stretch their lead and the peloton finally emerged as one in the final 8km of the stage, won by Davis in a bunch sprint.
“I thought we’d get a group away over the top,” Armstrong said.
“A little group stayed together behind us, then Davis’s group stayed together behind them, so in the end it was just too hard to make a big enough difference to stay away all the way to the finish,” he said.
Claiming he had given his all, Armstrong said his legs had finally improved after Friday’s fourth stage — which saw him pay the price for attacking earlier on in the week.
But he admitted that age could finally catch up with him.
“I didn’t have a good day yesterday. My legs were screaming at me all day long. Today was a lot better,” he said.
“That’s just the way it’s going to be, getting back into it. You’re going to have good days and bad days. But you just have to focus on the habits, constantly looking after yourself, recovering well and all the little things,” he said. “At 37 years old, you can’t just get by the way you are at 27.”
Asked about his stage performance, he said: “I felt pretty good, I felt better than yesterday. It means we recovered well through the night.”
“I felt on the way up the climb I didn’t have the punch needed to make the difference, but we were there and, I guess coming in [to the race], that’s what we were hoping for. So, no complaints,” he said.